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A Brief History of Unions

January 22, 2019

A Brief History of Unions

The concept of organized labor goes back to 14th century England and the enactment of the  Ordinance of Labourers in 1349. The ordinance was an attempt by the government to cap wages and impose price controls in the wake of the Black Death, which had wiped out almost half of Europe’s population. That, in turn, left labor in short supply.

The ordinance backed by another similar set of laws in 1351, was ineffective, as labor reaped the benefits of being in high demand. It wasn’t until population levels gradually increased that wealthy landowners were finally able to reverse the trend.

Around 1760, the industrial revolution began, which led to a greatly increased demand for labor. Workers benefited from increased wages and a better standard of living. Employers, though, insisted on getting the highest productivity out of their workers at the lowest cost. This often translated into long hours, uneven wages, and sometimes dangerous working conditions.

In response, workers began to organize. The British government responded with the Combination Act of 1799, which outlawed unions and collective bargaining. Unions continued on despite the attempts at suppression through legislation. In 1824, the Combination Act was finally repealed, only to be replaced by the Combination Act of 1825. The new law allowed workers to organize but severely restricted the ability of unions to collectively bargain for better wages, safer working conditions, and the right to strike.

In the U.S., trade unions were being formed in the late 1700s and continued to grow through the following century. However, even though the industrial revolution had come to America, unskilled factory workers did not begin to unionize until the mid-1800s. By 1866, the National Labor Union had been formed and though it dissolved in 1873, it paved the way for the American Federation of Labor (AFL),

In the 20th century, unions continued to grow as laborers across a variety of industries organized. Incidents such as the Pullman Strike in 1894 and the Coal Strike of 1902 demonstrated the power of organized labor, as employers bitterly fought the unions.

The entry of the United States into World War I saw an increase in industrial output and subsequently a higher demand for workers. This, in turn, led to higher wages and better working conditions, as well as a mandate by the federal government that factory owners negotiates in good faith with unions.

After the war, as industrial demand receded, so too did the bargaining position of the unions. As the economy of the Roaring Twenties chugged on, union membership declined. The Great Depression, which began following the Stock Market crash in 1929, saw unions rebound but not at first.

With unemployment reaching 25 percent, there simply weren’t as many workers to organize. The ones that were working could scarcely afford union dues. In 1932, government action, initiated by outgoing Republican President Herbert Hoover and continued in earnest by his successor, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, helped strengthen unions and their ability to organize, as well as their ability to negotiate with employers.

In 1933, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was formed with the aim of forming unions to bring into the AFL. The latter resisted and for a time the two were adversaries of a sort. They merged in 1955, forming today’s AFL-CIO. It was at this time that union membership peaked, with nearly a third of all workers in the U.S. belonging to a union.

Today, only 11 percent of workers claim union membership. Many point to the decline of unions with stagnant wages for all workers, as well as an increasing wealth gap. Business-friendly government legislation as eroded regulations, chipping away at many of the core principles unions fought so hard to bring to all workers.

With the increased use of part-time workers and so-called independent contractors, as well as the outsourcing of labor to foreign nations, and other factors, the need for unions may be coming back once again.